Acting Head of Staff
This past Sunday morning, in sanctuaries throughout our Presbytery and beyond, the familiar line of Charles Wesley’s classic hymn rang out “Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia.” Amid fuller than normal pews and chairs, kids dressed in new and matching outfits, white banners hanging and flowers decorating the chancel, and brass instruments ringing out, the people of God boldly proclaimed that the power and death of Good Friday were defeated – resoundingly – on that first Easter morning.
And, in the back pew on the right-hand side of the church I attended on Sunday, you would have found me. Not singing boldly and louder than my signing ability justifies as I usually am but struggling to put the words together through the tears filling my eyes. “No, no, no, this can’t be happening,” I thought as the waves of grief poured over me.
Two years ago, on Easter Sunday, two days before what would have been my father’s 79th birthday, he joined the church triumphant. A journey that began for us on Good Friday, with the decision to end life-sustaining care for my dad, ended just about the time many congregations were gathering for their sunrise services. The timing was fitting as my dad loved sunrise services, and many years cajoled me into going with him, despite the less than pleasant early morning temperatures in Western NY.
I am a Presbyterian because of my father. My dad was 100% Scotch-Irish, and Presbyterianism has been central to our family’s life going back generations. My first real introduction to the larger world of the Presbyterian church came through my dad, as he served on an investigating committee and later a multi-year administrative commission. We’d discuss what was happening, and I’d read through the minutes of the administrative commission for fun (I was a peculiar child, but that really shouldn’t surprise you by now). Last year on Easter, I was in the pulpit, covering for a member of our Presbytery who was facing the imminent death of a beloved family member. For that reason, as well as others, the connection between my dad’s passing and Easter didn’t feel as strong. This year, well, it was a whole different story.
As I drove home Sunday morning, I began reflecting on death, hope, and resurrection. Theologically, I’ve always understood that the resurrection of Jesus is the foundational event of the Christian faith. But personally and pastorally, I’ve come to appreciate the significance of the resurrection in the last few years. The resurrection is the foundation for Paul’s instructions in Thessalonians that we should grieve but not as others grieve, for we have hope. And that’s just it – it comes down to hope. Resurrection says that we can still hope even when the chips are down and all seems lost. We can hope that tomorrow might be different from today. We can hope that the pain of the present day might pass away and a new reality might come breaking through. We can hope, sometimes against all odds, that miracles can happen, even in the most desperate situations.
At the end of my first year of seminary, the pastor of my home church experienced a family tragedy when their eldest son passed away. As I got in line at the calling hours, I didn’t know what to say. I felt the pressure, as a seminary student, to offer something theologically insightful (or at least appropriate), but I didn’t have the darndest idea of what to say. When it was finally my turn to greet the family, I approached my pastor, and seemingly out of nowhere, I uttered the following sentence: “The tomb was empty.” That was it. It was pure instinct. No forethought, no planning, nothing. I am convinced that the Spirit gave me the only words I needed to say.
Our sanctuaries will look more normal when we gather this coming Sunday. The flowers will be gone, the pews less full, and the choir back to its regular size. But the tomb will still be empty. The foundation for Christian hope is as present and real at this moment as it was on this past Sunday and as real as it was on that first easter morning because the tomb is empty. We can have hope the other 364 days of the year that aren’t Easter because of an empty tomb.
May we, this week, the week after, and the week after that, never fail to remind people – in worship and at the bedside in the hospital – at the Session meeting, and with the grieving family – that the truth of Easter isn’t confined to one day, but is an ever-present foundation upon which we are to lives our lives.